New England vs. Virginia: Shaping the American Narrative

Originally posted by eugene on 05/04/07

Cliopatria, as NP notes in today’s open thread, asks this intriguing question about New England and Virginia in our national memory:

The question, as Ralph Luker stated, is why has the American national narrative characteristically taken New England/Puritans rather than Jamestown/Virginia/Anglicans as its foundation touchstone?

There are interrelated factors here, but they boil down to this: Americans prefer to see themselves engaged in a philosophical, individualist, idealistic project, instead of attending to the brutal realities of capitalist exploitation and greed and inequality. New England suits the former narrative; Virginia proves the centrality of the latter.

It makes a difference, of course, who has shaped the national narrative. Even in the early republic American letters were dominated by the Bostonians. Virginians provided most of the early presidents, but did not make a corresponding contribution to the shaping of American social or even political consciousness. With the development of transportation networks and the boom in printing that attended the early industrial revolution in the 1820s and 1830s it was Yankee newspapers and magazines from Boston, Connecticut, and New York that saturated the interior. It was New England revivalists, whether in New England itself or its near-abroad of Western New York, who promoted the Second Great Awakening around the nation. And after the Civil War, the South’s already small contribution to American literary and political thought was diminished even further; New England’s triumph seemed complete.

New England proved to be just as interested in making a profit and exploiting its labor to accomplish that as the Virginians were. New York had been the capital of American finance since the opening of the Erie Canal. And yet New Englanders, perhaps still animated by the skeptical relationship to wealth that characterized Puritans, tried to downplay their emerging capitalism in favor of emphasizing the pursuits of the mind, be it religious revival, Transcendentalism, or abolitionism.

Given New England’s control of the media establishment, such as it was, and the North’s triumph in the 1860s, it would seem that alone explains why the American narrative emphasizes Plymouth and ignores Jamestown. But I think it goes further.

Jamestown is a quintessentially American place. It was founded in the pursuit of wealth, no bones about it. Religion was present but always acted as a pillar of the established order. And that order was hierarchical, unequal, undemocratic, and exploitative. Jamestown was no city on a hill, but it WAS a company town of the kind that continued to recreate themselves across the American landscape well into the 20th century, from mill towns in New England to mining camps in the West. The New England story emphasizes individual opportunity, whereas the Virginia story reminds us of the reality of opportunity denied, or stolen, or channeled only to a wealthy and well-connected few.

Colonial Virginia resembles modern America in some important respects. There, as now, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, and the mass of workers finds it nearly impossible to break into that group. That elite tightly controls economic opportunity, maintains their position atop the production chain, and steadily seeks to limit democratic checks on their wealth and their power. Religion in colonial Virginia supported these political arrangements, just as American religion today is increasingly doing.

Colonial Virginia was a place that disdained democracy, glorified profit, and was a miserable place to work. It is no surprise that Americans prefer to see themselves as a modern New England, full of individual entrepreneurs engaged in a dignified and philosophically just pursuit of fulfillment, rather than toiling away in an economy increasingly rigged against them. New England represents our hopes and our illusions, Virginia represents our fears and our realities.

And then there is slavery. Jamestown from nearly the beginning had a soft form of slavery – indentured servitude – that ensured economic production would always be done by a disempowered mass and the fruits of their labor kept by a politically connected elite. Slavery, a more sinister and yet more economical (for the planter class) form of labor, dominated American life for nearly 250 years. New Englanders don’t like to mention that they too had slaves, that the North didn’t end slavery until the Revolution, and even then their reforms provided only for gradual abolition.

To consider Virginia is to have to face the reality of American slavery. To recognize that America isn’t always about being a city on a hill, a nation of enlightened individuals seeking their own transcendence, but instead has usually been about the gritty pursuit of wealth as conducted through unequal power relationships that are codified in law and backed by religion. To see a nation that imported millions of people against their will to work here, denied their equality and their rights, and proceeded to maintain that inequality well after they were given their emancipation.

It is easier for Americans – especially white Americans – to view our ongoing racial “problems” through a New England lens, one that sees all people as basically equal and therefore quite capable of succeeding, if they just put their mind to it. Yankee hard work will lift you up, not a welfare check, not a protest. A look at Virginia might remind us of the flaws of that thinking – that the promises of the Virginia gentry to their indentured servants, that they would get their own land and become themselves wealthy if they just hired themselves out for 7 years, proved a cruel falsehood. A look at Virginia might remind us of how systematically we oppressed people of color – and how we did this in ways beyond the institution of slavery – and therefore might remind us of how much work we must do as a society, how much responsibility we must admit, to provide for true equality.

The American national narrative focuses on New England, then, because it makes things easier for us. It lets us believe this system really can work for us individuals, that anyone can find fulfillment, whether it’s secular, religious, or economic in nature. To focus on Virginia is to see just how difficult those things are to accomplish. To see how the American political economy is anything but free, anything but democratic, anything but equal. No wonder we try to forget it as much as possible.


One Response to New England vs. Virginia: Shaping the American Narrative

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